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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
UK troops stretched to limit
British troops in Afghanistan
British troops are to have an extended stay
The British armed forces are stretched to their limit, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has said.

He had already conceded that the UK's lead role in the Afghan-based peacekeeping force Isaf would probably extend to June instead of ending in April as planned.


Obviously we are at the limits of our commitments and I recognise that

Geoff Hoon

But Mr Hoon insisted that he would make sure that demands on British forces did not outstrip their capacity.

The defence secretary was speaking as his department confirmed that the battlegroup being sent to Afghanistan on a hunt and destroy mission against remaining al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters would be up to strength by the end of the month.

'Superb job'

Around 500 marine commandos are already in Afghanistan and the remaining 1,200 will be deployed over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, plans for Turkey to take over the UK's peacekeeping role are still expected to go ahead but the defence secretary said details needed to be finalised.

Mr Hoon said British troops were doing a "superb job" and commanded widespread respect not just in Afghanistan but around the world.

"I recognise that it's my responsibility that we do not ask more of our servicemen and women than they can reasonably manage - I set that out very clearly in the House of Commons.

Geoff Hoon
Mr Hoon was being quizzed about the UK's role abroad
"Obviously we are at the limits of our commitments and I recognise that," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He also revealed that he would continue to lobby Chancellor Gordon Brown to make adequate funds available for defence ahead of next week's Budget.

"I will be making clear to the chancellor - as I have done for some time - the importance of proper funding for the armed forces," said Mr Hoon

"But equally I assure you that the chancellor is very sympathetic and understanding of that claim."

On Thursday Mr Hoon said the British contingent serving with Isaf would reduce over time.

He said the numbers had already fallen from 1,800 to 1,500.

Going well?

"We now expect these numbers to reduce further as Turkey takes over as lead nation," he told MPs.


The government needs to be more realistic

Bernard Jenkin, shadow defence secretary
"But I should emphasise that our commitment to Isaf will continue and that a significant number of British troops will remain in Kabul under Turkish command."

Mr Hoon also revealed to the Commons that other operations against the remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaeda were going well and 500 members of the UK battle force being deployed to Afghanistan had arrived at Bagram airbase near Kabul.

'Short-sighted'

Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin said Mr Hoon's admission that British forces were stretched was "a graphic admission that Britain's military commitments are not matched to capabilities and resources, which is what we have been saying.

He said Mr Hoon's announcement that British commitments in Afghanistan will extend beyond six months showed "he has no control over the commitments the Prime Minister keeps making."

Mr Jenkin added: "The government needs to be more realistic and plan for the long-term, instead of this short sighted, short-term approach."

US request

Operations against remaining pockets of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan had been due to get underway.

But the government has said there were difficulties with airlifting troops and equipment into the country.

The battlegroup is built around the 650-strong 45 Commando.

It includes supporting artillery, engineers and logistics troops as well as RAF Chinook transport helicopters.

The specialist mountain warfare troops have been deployed at the request of the US.

See also:

06 Apr 02 | South Asia
UK troops trade fire in Kabul
06 Apr 02 | South Asia
Graduation day for Afghan troops
01 Mar 02 | UK Politics
Kabul mission extension 'possible'
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